There’s been a lot of talk, at least since Trump’s victory, about the poor Whites left to rust and rot due to our neoliberal economic policies pursued by the two political parties. We often get stuck with an image of illiterate redneck pockets unable to cope with the evolving nature of modernity and corporate greed. There’s a risk of dehumanizing which must be avoided despite political differences. Clifford Garstang has done a decent enough job to explore the good, the bad, and in-between by focusing his lens on a family whose presence in a small idle place called Turtle Valley, Virginia, goes back generations. For now, Garstang goes after the current generation with Aiken at the heart of the story.
According to one view, America keeps a certain part of its population illiterate and poor, Whites and non-Whites, on purpose to be used as cannon fodder for its imperial wars around the globe. Without any regard for their well-being afterwards if they’re lucky enough to return in one piece. It is not rocket science to see the connection between the Korean War and onward to a rising number of veterans ending up homeless on American streets, begging or going insane. So it is only natural that Aiken, the younger son of Henry and Ruth, joins the army to be deployed to Kuwait and Iraq around Desert Storm. Luckily his deployment is short, though he has his share of war trauma but it has spared him more or less. Before he can quit the army, however, his second deployment takes him to South Korea, where he befriends an underage young woman interested in practicing her English with American soldiers and gets her pregnant towards the end of his tenure.
The novel opens with Aiken loading his truck with few of his belongings in order to move in with his parents while contemplating how best to stay in touch with his four year old son, Henry named after his father, a Navy veteran, and how to make sense of the distance which has opened up regarding his Korean wife. The author, then, gradually introduces characters (with chapters dedicated to their points of view) who continue to be important in Aiken’s life and in doing so, Garstang shows the complexity of ordinary human beings affected by their complex family histories. There are several reasons for the fissures which have developed between Aiken and Soon-hee. If Aiken’s mother’s coldness towards her wasn’t enough, his failure of a cousin Jake, his father’s estranged, absconding brother’s son, has aggravated her desire to return to Korea where she can belong again. Jake in turn has been prodded to mess with Soon-hee’s head by Aiken’s mother’s step niece Tammy, who believes that only Soon-hee can find out where Aiken’s parents have hidden family treasure because of her magical powers, hence the title The Shaman of Turtle Valley.
It is true that Soon-hee personifies the shaman tradition of Korea where the role is held by women who have “the power to call the Mountain God” though it echoes the Blackfoot Mountain medicine man whose presence has been felt by Aiken’s family members since early 1800s to present day, Soon-hee being the most recent, but there’s more to it as she tells us that “the vision is passed from mother to daughter to granddaughter, or it comes from pain. My vision is from pain. Ay-ken is the cause of my pain; he rips me from my home and brings me here. Ta-mee helps me see. I pray to Sansin to give Ay-ken pain, like he gives to me.”
Tammy’s reasons are complex, still she’s the first one to notice that besides Aiken’s obliviousness lie a broken person and sees a rape where others see a mixed race couple. Tammy sees a reflection of her own tragedies in Soon-hee’s life, past and present. The author hints, like a premonition, at Aiken’s innate noblesse obliviousness when he makes a passing comment about Aiken’s lack of interest in knowing how his forefathers acquired “hundreds of acres.” This could be a subtle reference to how most Americans never question the history of American conquest. Nowhere in the story does a reader catch a glimpse of Aiken questioning why the US has a base in South Korea or anything about the Korean War except as a passing reference about Soon-hee’s father who had taken part in it and might have taught her to shoot. Yet the story quietly progresses towards a bigger moment when he reconnects with his high school sweetheart. What to Aiken’s mind has always been a matter of betrayal from Kelly when she left town and eventually married after Aiken joined the army, Kelly’s perspective shatters his sense of self. Their last love-making moment, she considers rape. To make matter worse, she got pregnant, her miscarriage notwithstanding. Kelly also reinforces the perception that when people see a twenty year old Korean wife with a four year old son, she tells him, it doesn’t look pretty.
The name given to the main character is on purpose, symbolizing the collective ache—aching/Aiken—of humanity if not of all Americans. As if two rape allegations weren’t enough, there’s more drama in Aiken’s life when he learns new disturbing information about himself after his mother’s death via her tape recordings. Aiken’s mother also felt responsible towards destroying her elder son’s love life and his eventual death. It is only Aiken’s unwavering love for and devotion to his four year old Henry keeps him sane, and likeable to his readers.
Soon-hee, unlike Aiken, loses her anchor, even sanity, entering the realm of shamanism, gone missing along with the son, paying a quiet visit to Aiken’s dying father in hospital, reappearing to take care of Aiken’s dying mother at home, and then disappearing again and no one knows if she has left the area, gone back to Korea, or turned into a wandering spirit. Soon-hee was already a marked woman, Garstang tells us in a passing reference, even before she fell under Aiken’s spell, the spell America cast upon her imagination during her English classes taught by a teacher with yellow streaming hair. “It is difficult to not stare at her long nose and that hair.” She often spaces out to “imagine the Beautiful Country, America.” It is, then, easy to relate to Soon-hee’s disappointment turned to madness as she ends up in a stifling, disorienting place. On a personal note, I’d like to add that many victims of the glossy image of the US that’s bombarded to people all over the world, the reality can still stun a person even if she ends up in a place like San Francisco, as I did.
Reading Garstang’s The Shaman of Turtle Valley brought to mind two very different novels. Ill Will by Dan Chaon for the way it dissects American violence DNA. And The Border of Paradise by Esme Weijun Wang for exploring the cost of when a decent but oblivious American man brings back an Asian wife and settles down in a non-Urban environment. But Garstang’s net is cast wider with an eye to tie domestic issues with foreign policy. As Aiken’s life unravels, he does have glimpses of the connections, parallels of destruction and hope. For example, after his barn burns down, he recalls the house in Iraq that burnt down. Its inhabitant were able to built it. “Could he?” the author questions. The link Garstang draws between the Native Indians and other victims of US foreign policy—Soon-hee in this case—is also at the heart of the story.
My only issue is with Soon-hee’s character. There’s a line of criticism about turning the focus away from the victims of our wars to our own tragic pose. Garstang doesn’t fall int that trap and accords Soon-hee a central place in the novel. But I also sensed it’s a missed opportunity to not let Soon-hee navigate and survive a alien, often inhospitable environment. Millions of immigrant women have done just that and continue to do so in various economic pockets of America. Garstang, after all, shows that she’s capable of making friends, bonding, and caring for others. Moreover, she’s capable of asking her husband to leave and she knows when to disappear with her child. It seems as if the tremendous effort to keep Aiken sane, rational, and grounded in reality despite the sky falling down on him triggered the creation of a Soon-hee who’s the exact opposite of Aiken. Despite the fact that Garstang sees them both as victims of American foreing policy, this dichotomy of rational vs spiritual flirts with orientalism. If Iraqis could rebuild their lives, so could Soon-hee.
The strongest part of the novel is Garstang’s prose which is a pleasure to read, carefully measured but not dry, with the right balance between interiority and exteriority. He doesn’t overdo when, for practical and literary purposes, English is put into Soon-hee’s mouth. Just enough inflection does the trick. A lot more space is given when a chapter revolves around Aiken, his thoughts and actions, while the length of most other chapters is slim. That keeps the reader interested, intrigued. His brush strokes evoke the place magnificently and the lives of minor characters make the small town come alive. True, there is a bit too much drama, one might say, but Garstang succeeds in making us contemplate how an isolated American town is connected to a world way beyond its comprehension.
The Shaman of Turtle Valley, by Clifford Garstang. Braddock, Pennsylvania: Braddock Avenue Books, May 2019. 396 pages. $18.95, paper.
Moazzam Sheikh is the author of Idol Lover and Other Stories and Cafe Le Whore and Other Stories. He guest-edited Chicago Quarterly Review‘s special issue on South Asian American writers (2017) to critical acclaim. He’s a librarian and lives in San Francisco with his wife and two sons.